It’s Palm Sunday. Instead of processing around the outside of Hope School as we’ve done the past couple of years, we waved our branches from our homes, worshipping together via Zoom. (See raleighmennonite.org/2020/palm-sunday for a link to the video shared during the service of several RMCers waving branches in front of their homes.)
Indeed, things are different this year. People sensed something different as well when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jerusalem was in turmoil. Jesus continued to pull back the curtain and show the world the one who would shepherd and steward creation, not with force and coercion, but with care and love.
This unmasking is the task that is always set before us. To uncover and reveal the structures and mechanisms, the powers and principalities of this world. And then we put our bodies together. We put our money together. We put our lives together, of living and dying, and set before this one we follow as Messiah.
Melissa Florer-Bixler Sermon from March 29, 2020 worship service, held via Zoom John 11 The spoken version of the message, without notes, is also available on the podcast.
One of the parts of our faith that is most important to me
is the affirmation that God has something to do with the world. And if God has
something to do with the world, then God has something to do with things not
going well in the world.
These two things being true hardly answer our most pressing
questions. What does God have to do
with this world? That’s a lot harder for us. Once we start to answer it, we’ll
usually discover the answer is insufficient.
Are bad things that happen in our world a result of people
sinning? Well, no. We’ve heard that over the past couple weeks in our Gospel
readings. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Neither, Jesus responds.
Is God hands-off of creation, watching from a distance? No,
that doesn’t seem to be the case either.
Can we blame God for terrible things happening in our world?
Could God stop it all if God wanted to?
Try to answer and the answer comes up short. Something is
But I’m grateful that this hasn’t stopped people in the
Bible from expressing anger and frustration at God for the state of the world.
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
How long, O Lord, will you look on and do nothing? Rescue me from their fierce attacks. Protect my life from these lions!
“O God my rock,” I cry, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief, oppressed by my enemies?”
So we shouldn’t be surprised to see Martha welling up with a
mix of faithfulness to her friend, Jesus, and frustration and anger at his slow
response to their need for help with their brother, Lazarus.
Not once, not twice, but three times the question that
haunts us is given words, is dared to breathed aloud:
“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This
is repeated by both sisters, Martha and Mary. Then it is said again by
grumbling neighbors: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have
kept this man from dying?””
Jesus response is not an explanation or a defense. Jesus
does not silence them for their impertinence. The fact that the text preserves
the question three times invites us to ask it. Our thoughts are read into the
text. As a response Jesus does not try to calm them down with promises. He
doesn’t offer to placate them with the hope he knows fully. He doesn’t tell
Mary to back off or to remember her place.
Instead Jesus does something that he will only do once in
all four accounts we have of his life on earth. Jesus weeps.
Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury says that people often ask him to explain suffering. “They don’t really mean it,” Williams writes. Can you imagine if, in the midst of terrible disaster and trauma someone said, “‘Sit down for a moment and I’’ll explain the universe to you, and you will see why there’s no problem at all.” My friend Chantelle once said something to me that I return to again and again when I think of suffering. “There is no explanation for your suffering that is sufficient,” she told me. There is nothing rational that will make you feel better about the loss of a child or a painful chronic illness. It is a Nothing. It is meaninglessness itself. It is anti-creation, anti-explanation, anti-reason.
Martha and Mary’s anger is a protest against this. It is
rage against the Nothing, the disorder and dis-ease of the universe. And they
know where to bring this anger and frustration. They entrust it to Jesus.
This is counter-intuitive – the most robust faith is one
that makes space to bring, in fact to hurl this anger at God. To think that God
is in the mix is to believe in God. To think that God has something to do with pain
is to trust that God has disappointed us. Mary and Martha speak to Jesus with
expectation, and expectation that comes from their love and their experience of
who he is.
If you are looking for a messiah who will offer you a
philosophical treatise on suffering, you will not find that here in
Christianity. If you are looking for a messiah who silences questioners and
demands blind allegiance, you will not find that here. If you are looking for a
messiah who offers suffering as an end in itself, who pulls out lessons from
your trauma, you will not find that here.
Here you will find a messiah who weeps. You will find God
who gets into the mess, into the terror and trauma with us. You will find God
who walks his own life towards death in his son. But before that you will find
him walking towards the places where his beloved has died and falling down and
The only answer to suffering is love. The only way through
it is love. The only healing from it is love. And Jesus body is the enfolding
of love into this world, the yeast of love working its way into creation.
I don’t meant that sentimentally, as if good feelings or
positive thoughts directed into the universe are the way to dampen our terror.
I mean that today doctors are showing up to hospitals where they don’t have
adequate equipment to protect themselves from disease. I mean that people show
up to soup kitchens and homeless shelters at great risk to themselves. I mean
that people put their bodies on the line to bring groceries to neighbors and to
care for people who have no caregivers.
There is immense suffering ahead of us, still. I do not want to deceive you by offering false hope or platitudes. But I also know this – there is great love ahead, love so immense that it will take your breath away.
On our third online worship service during the COVID-19 pandemic, Melissa had some technical challenges so presented her message without notes. The scripture was from John 11, the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.
When Mary and Martha tell Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Jesus doesn’t attempt to give them a philosophical answer or placate them with false hope. Instead, Jesus weeps.
Suffering is a Nothing. It’s a none reason, a nonsense. It’s not something that we can ever make sense of. The only answer to suffering is love. The only way through it is love.
“There is immense suffering ahead of us, still. I do not want to deceive you by offering false hope or platitudes. But I also know this – there is great love ahead, love so immense that it will take your breath away.”
We all met from our homes via Zoom as the second week apart due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Melissa preached from John 9:1-41.
This is a time of anxiety and fear, but it’s also a time for us to sift through our own lives and for us to think about what it will be like to put things back together. What new thing is God doing among us? Listen for it in unexpected places or from unexpected people.
On this first Sunday we streamed our service rather than meet in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Melissa preached from John 4:5-42. A small group met at Fletcher to lead worship.
“These are unusual and difficult times. But these are opportunities for us to both be and to receive good news. To let our lives be hope, and to listen to where we have new ways to encounter God’s work.”
On this first Sunday that we held worship at Fletcher Academy, Melissa recounts the story of the Last Supper, Jesus having Passover with his friends. The account in Matthew spends more time talking about the betrayal by Judas than it does about breaking of the bread and sharing the cup.
When we come together for communion, we stand in a circle, full of our betrayals, all of our failures, and they’re already awash in the death of Jesus. His life is in the blood.
NOTE: There were electronic issues during the recording which caused interference in the audio. It gets progressively worse toward the end of the recording, but it’s a good sermon, so if you can persevere, it’s worth it!
Baptism is a little death. At the same time, all of life is baptism.
There is no point at which you will know enough, or have enough faith, or get enough information, to pass the test for entering this community through baptism. There is no test! It’s already completed.
Baptism won’t initiate a perfect life. In fact, you might get more confused or have more questions.
Even though Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, Jesus becomes a part of Joseph’s story; the inheritor and adopted child of the whole line of God’s promises. Our story as Christians is also one of adoption. We were destined for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ.
Adoption – Dec. 22, 2019 Raleigh Mennonite Church Sermons
When women in the Bible have something to say, it often comes out as a song. Mary’s song, recounted in Luke 1, is revolutionary. God is on the side of the dispossessed and Mary sings of the revolution taking place through God’s world-toppling love.
Melissa’s message was preceded by a video recitation of the Magnificat read by RMC women with Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “We are the One’s” in the background and powerful images of revolutionary women.
Revolutionary Magnificat – Dec. 15, 2019 Raleigh Mennonite Church Sermons
On this second Sunday of Advent, Melissa told us, “this is a season to be shaken up and shaken out.”
Christians have a profound failure to live out the Gospel, but we’re also attuned to our failure. We require outside intervention and Jesus comes through an intervention of love. It’s time to be shaken and brought to the full realization of ourselves.
Melissa began with a short video clip (:40-1:15) showing the reunion between a lioness and her two early caretakers.
Fulfilled – Filled Up – Dec. 8, 2019 Raleigh Mennonite Church Sermons
Food is political. Eating is a kind of politics. Isaiah offers this vision of the the end of all things, centering around a meal. In this passage, all things, all people, are reconciled in God. Everything bruised and damaged is made whole, but also those who bruise and damage are made whole. We’re all there together sharing the joy and intimacy of food.
With Veterans Day last Monday, Melissa admonishes us to advocate for veterans who have come back from military service. While this may seem like a contradiction for pacifists, it is an act of reconciliation. Veterans are also victims; victims of systems of war. When they return from war, they often suffer from moral injury.
What did you bring today that you have not said aloud? What corner of sorrow have you left covered?
We work without pause, return again to a race for efficiency, too busy to attend to the grief we bury in our chests. So pause here… Pause here among others who have come to take your sorrow in their hands and among those who ask you to carry theirs. The backbone of lament is not despair; it is hope.
Whatever you bring today is good. Whatever you bear is holy.
Melissa’s meditation this morning preceded the opportunity to offer up our lamentations, write them on slips of paper and affix them to the cross.
Lamentations – Nov. 3, 2019 Raleigh Mennonite Church Sermons
The book of Ecclesiastes is a strange book to have in our canon. It’s a pessimistic book that veers into sarcasm, and it has no issue telling you exactly how life is in the world. A book for the frustrated and the cynical.
It’s comforting to know that the Bible has room for all of us. What we see here is not a reflection of how God is; God’s justice is a mystery. What do you do with the arbitrariness of life as it’s spelled out in this book? You look for flashes of joy when they come!
We were given the opportunity to share an instance in the last week where we saw a sign of God’s love in the vapor of this troubled world. Those instances were shared with the congregation.
(Note: the audio begins a bit low, but gets louder about 15 seconds in.)